Assassination Records Review Board

Lyndon B. Johnson hoped that the Warren Commission would convince the American people that President John F. Kennedy had been killed by a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. However, public opinion polls suggested that ever since the publication of the report the vast majority of the adult population believed that he died as a result of a conspiracy.

These numbers increased during the investigations of Frank Church and his House Select Committee on Intelligence Activities (HSCA). This was followed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. As a result of this acoustic evidence G. Robert Blakey , the HSCA's chief counsel was able to state that there were "four shots, over a total period of 7.91 seconds were fired at the Presidential limousine. The first, second and fourth came from the Depository; the third from the Grassy Knoll."

The HSCA concluded that "scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy." It added that on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee is unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy."

The American public continued to believe that the full story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy had not been told. This feeling was increased with the release of the movie JFK. The director of the film, Oliver Stone, called for the remaining CIA and FBI documents pertaining to the assassination of Kennedy to be released. Clifford Krauss, reported in the New York Times that members of the Kennedy family supported this move. The historian, Stephen Ambrose, argued that “the crime of the century is too important to be allowed to remain unsolved and too complex to be left in the hands of Hollywood movie makers.” Louis Stokes, who had chaired the House Select Committee on Assassinations, also called for the files to be unclassified.

The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, or the JFK Records Act, was passed by the United States Congress, and became effective on 26th October, 1992. The Act requires that each assassination record be publicly disclosed in full, and be available in the collection no later than the date that is 25 years after the date of enactment of the Act (October 26, 2017), unless the President of the United States certifies that: (1) continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations; and (2) the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

Assassination Records Review Board included John R. Tunheim (United States District Court Judge; District of Minnesota), Dr. Henry F. Graff (Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University), Dr. Kermit L. Hall (Professor of History and Law at The Ohio State University), Dr. William L. Joyce (Associate University Librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University) and Dr. Anna K. Nelson (Professor of History at The American University).

Witnesses who appeared before the Assassination Records Review Board included Peter Dale Scott, Jim Marrs, Gary Mack, Adele Edisen, Martin Shackelford, Michael Kurtz, David Lifton and Josiah Thompson.

There are currently over 50,000 pages of government documents relating to the assassination that have not been released.

Primary Sources

(1) Report of the Assassination Records Review Board (September, 1998)

The Assassination Records Review Board was a unique solution to a unique problem. Although the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the subject of lengthy official investigations, beginning with the Warren Commission in 1964, and continuing through the House Select Committee on Assassinations, in 1978-79, the American public has continued to seek answers to nagging questions raised by this inexplicable act. These questions were compounded by the government penchant for secrecy. Fears sparked by the Cold War discouraged the release of documents, particularly those of the intelligence and security agencies. Even the records created by the investigative commissions and committees were withheld from public view and sealed. As a result, the official record on the assassination of President Kennedy remained shrouded in secrecy and mystery.

The suspicions created by government secrecy eroded confidence in the truthfulness of federal agencies in general and damaged their credibility. Finally, frustrated by the lack of access and disturbed by the conclusions of Oliver Stone's JFK, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act), mandating the gathering and opening of all records concerned with the death of the President.

The major purpose of the Review Board was to re-examine for release the records that the agencies still regarded as too sensitive to open to the public. In addition, Congress established the Review Board to help restore government credibility. To achieve these lofty goals, Congress designed an entity that was unprecedented.

Three provisions of the Act were at the heart of the design. First, Congress established the Review Board as an independent agency. Second, the Board consisted of five citizens, trained in history, archives, and the law, who were not government employees but who had the ability to order agencies to declassify government documentsthe first time in history that an outside group has had such power. Third, once the Board made the decision that a document should be declassified, only the President could overrule its decision. Fortunately, Congress also gave the Board a staff whose work was critical to its success.

The JFK Act required all government agencies to search for the records in their possession concerning the assassination and place them in the National Archives. The Act provided for the appointment of the members of the Review Board within ninety days, but the transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations caused an 18-month delay between passage of the Act and the swearing-in of the Board members. Only then could the Board hire staff and arrange for office space. This delay had two ramifications. First, the Act stated that the work of the Board was to be completed in three years, an unrealistic goal since more than 18 months had already elapsed. (The Board's work was eventually extended to four years.) Second, agencies were sending documents to the National Archives before the Board established its guidelines for their release. Consequently and unfortunately, once the Review Board did provide guidance to the agencies, much of their initial work had to be revised, further slowing the processing and re-reviewing by the Board and its staff.

(2) Assassination Records Review Board Review Board Recommendations (September, 1998)

The Final Report of the Assassination Records Review Board provides not only an opportunity to detail the extraordinary breadth and depth of the Board's work to identify and release the records of the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy, but also to reflect on the Board's shared experience in carrying out this mission and the meaning of its efforts for the much larger challenge of secrecy and accountability in the federal government. It is true that the Board's role was to a large extent disciplined and tightly focused on the assassination, its aftermath and the broader Cold War context in which the events occurred.

Any evaluation, however, of the unique experience of the Review Board - five private citizens granted unprecedented powers to require public release of long-secret federal records - inevitably presents the larger question of how the Board's work can be applied to federal records policy. There is no doubt that for decades the pendulum had swung sharply toward secrecy and away from openness. Changes wrought by the end of the Cold War and the public's desire to know have begun to shift the balance. The Review Board's mandate represented a new frontier in this changing balance - an entirely new declassification process applied to the most-sought after government secrets. In this chapter, the Board steps back and reflects on its experiences, raises issues that will help frame the declassification debate, and makes recommendations on the lessons to be learned from the path taken to release of the Kennedy assassination collection. The dialogue about how best to balance national security and privacy with openness and accountability will continue both within government and beyond. The Review Board will necessarily be part of that important debate...

1. The Review Board recommends that future declassification boards be genuinely independent, both in the structure of the organization and in the qualifications of the appointments.

2. The Review Board recommends that any serious, sustained effort to declassify records requires congressional legislation with (a) a presumption of openness, (2) clear standards of access, (3) an enforceable review and appeals process, and (4) a budget appropriate to the scope of the task.

3. The Review Board recommends that its "common law" of decision, formed in the context of a "presumption of disclosure" and the "clear and convincing evidence of harm" criteria, be utilized for similar information in future declassification efforts as a way to simplify and speed up releases.

4. The Review Board recommends that future declassification efforts avoid the major shortcomings of the JFK Act: (a) unreasonable time limits, (b) employee restrictions, (c) application of the law after the Board terminates, and (d) problems inherent with rapid sunset provisions.

5. The Review Board recommends that the cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive problem of referrals for "third party equities" (classified information of one agency appearing in a document of another) be streamlined by (A) requiring representatives of all agencies with interests in selected groups of records to meet for joint declassification sessions, or (B) devising uniform substitute language to deal with certain categories of recurring sensitive equities.

6. The Review Board recommends that a compliance program be used in future declassification efforts as an effective means of eliciting full cooperation in the search for records.

7. The Review Board recommends the following to ensure that NARA can exercise the provisions of the JFK Act after the Review Board terminates:

a. that NARA has the authority and means to continue to implement Board decisions,

b. that an appeals procedure be developed that places the burden for preventing access on the agencies, and

c. that a joint oversight group composed of representatives of the four organizations that originally nominated individuals to serve on the Review Board be created to facilitate the continuing execution of the access provisions of the JFK Act.

8. The Review Board recommends that the Review Board model be adopted and applied whenever there are extraordinary circumstances in which continuing controversy concerning government actions has been most acute and where an aggressive effort to release all "reasonably related" federal records would serve usefully to enhance historical understanding of the event.

9. The Review Board recommends that both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Executive Order 12958 be strengthened, the former to narrow the categories of information automatically excluded from disclosure, the latter to add "independent oversight" to the process of "review" when agency heads decide that records in their units should be excluded from release.

10. The Review Board recommends the adoption of a federal classification policy that substantially:

a. limits the number of those in government who can actually classify federal documents,

b. restricts the number of categories by which documents might be classified,

c. reduces the time period for which the document(s) might be classified,

d. encourages the use of substitute language to immediately open material which might otherwise be classified, and

e. increases the resources available to the agencies and NARA for declassifying federal records.

(3) Douglas Horne, The Assassination of JFK (2004)

I was formerly a staff employee of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). The ARRB, established by the JFK Records Act of 1992, existed for 4 years, from September 1994 through September 1998. The ARRB was tasked with defining, locating, and ensuring the declassification (to the maximum extent possible under the JFK Act) of all Federal Records considered "reasonably related" to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Agencies which had open records dumped their documents directly into the National Archives; Agencies which desired redactions in documents had to submit subject records to the ARRB for review and a "determination" as to their disposition.) The ARRB was not tasked by Congress to reinvestigate the assassination, or to reach conclusions, rather, only to ensure that Federal agencies conducted proper searches, and to facilitate placing records into the new JFK Collection at the National Archives.

I served as an analyst on the Military Records Team from early August 1995, through the end of September 1998, and served as the head of this small section - as "Chief Analyst for Military Records" - from April 1997 through shutdown of the ARRB in September of 1998.

The principal accomplishments of the Military Records Team was to secure the original USMC Service Record and Health Record of the accused assassin (LHO) for the JFK Collection, and to obtain significant quantities of records related to U.S. military and diplomatic policy on Vietnam and Cuba for the period 1961 through 1964.

Additionally, since President Kennedy's autopsy was a military autopsy, and those records are therefore military records, a great amount of staff energy was expended in trying to clarify the rather confusing and conflicted record of how the President died, and the nature of his wounds. Specifically, the ARRB staff conducted 10 depositions of persons who were either participants or witnesses at the autopsy, or who were involved in post mortem photography. (All of these depositon transcripts are now part of the JFK Collection.) In additon to the depositions, numerous unsworn staff interviews were conducted of other autopsy and medical photography witnesses.

I was the principal research assistant to the General Counsel in preparation for, and conduct of, the 10 autopsy-related depositions. I personally conducted about one half of the unsworn interviews of medical witnesses, and was present at the remainder. The records of these proceedings constitute "new evidence" in the JFK assassination and, subject to the usual caveats about eyewitness testimony, contain some rather startling information.

As an organization, the ARRB took no formal positions on the content of the medical depositions or medical unsworn interviews, and simply deposited them in the National Archives without comment. (The whole concept of the JFK Records Act was to create a central, unclassified archive for U.S. citizens to peruse at will so they could come to their own individual conclusions regarding the assassination.) However, as a staff member I wrote a handful of "memoranda for the record," or point papers, expressing my own personal opinions about what I considered important information gleaned during the depositions and the unsworn interviews.

I also served as the ARRB's liaison with the Kodak company in it's performance of "pro bono" work for the ARRB: digitization and preservation of the autopsy photographic images, and an authenticity study of the Zapruder film.